Learning to Act using Lean Principles

Learning to See” was the right title for the workbook that introduced the world to value stream mapping. For the first time it taught the world a way to see how to turn a set of separately managed activities into a Lean process, through which work could flow with the least possible interruptions. It opened people’s eyes to literally hundreds of opportunities for improvement. As a result the world is full of current state maps and Lean activities.

But walking round many organisations doing Lean it is still rare to see evidence of well structured procedures to focus people on doing the right things. Often you are taken to see a wall with charts tracking progress over recent months. If that is all you see you know that this is not driving activities on the shop floor and is there simply to impress visiting dignitaries from HQ or outsiders. If you can’t see what needs to be done day by day or hour by hour then neither can employees.

So to be able to do the right things we need to develop ways in which people can learn not just to see what is happening but also to learn to see what needs to be done. The way to do this is to make everything as visual as possible. Here is my list of the things I would like to be able to see walking round a good Lean operation.

I would like to be able to see the pattern of demand for key products or services at the point of use or at the point of sale and to compare this with the pattern of incoming orders received and with the production and shipping instructions issued to the shop floor. This will show everyone the gap between real demand and the volatility created by the way orders are passed on to the plant. It will also show whether the planning systems are levelling orders or creating even more variability in the work to be done. This focuses attention on speeding up the information flow, beginning to align production capabilities with the rate and pattern of demand and on creating the stability essential for continuous improvement.

Then I want to be able to see the work to be done at every point in the process. Clearing the decks with a good 5S programme is a good start, provided it is audited frequently. But more important is to see the documentation of standard work at every operation, standard maintenance schedules on each piece of equipment and standard material replenishment rules for all supplies, as well as clear evidence that they are being followed by everyone.

Next is good visual management of planned and actual progress at frequent intervals during the shift using some form of progress control charts (or Andon boards). These should where possible be filled in by the team leader and not hidden on a computer. And there should be clear evidence that team leaders and supervisors respond quickly to any slippage, to get back on track as soon as possible. At the side of these charts I would expect to see a record of every problem that occurred during the shift, together with evidence that these were being tracked and resolved using a common problem solving process.

Absolutely essential is a current and future state map of the value stream. This needs to be tied to an action plan which shows the steps being taken to get to the future state, together with an implementation plan that is regularly audited by management. This might be accompanied by a map of the whole end-to-end value stream showing current performance and progress towards improvement targets in every organisation across this value stream. Modern communications should make it possible to update this information very frequently.

Finally I look for a clear statement of the high level objectives of the organisation and a deployment mechanism to make sure every improvement action is aligned and supports the desired direction.

Making everything visual is not always easy. Some senior managers are used to hiding much of this information because knowledge is power. Others see it as undermining the authority of the senior manager or expert who is expected to know all the answers. Good Lean management recognises that making progress and problems visible is the most powerful way of engaging every employee in improving the performance of the organisation.